UVM student initiative

from students to entrepreneurs

The other day I received a cryptic call. After a few moments I learned that, once again and out of the clear blue, writing inside VT is the subject of an unsolicited PR/fundraising effort.

It happened a year or two back, when we received a generous check from a local congregation. The accompanying note explained that writing inside VT had been chosen the worthy non-profit recipient of the week’s Sunday collection. Quite aside from my curiosity as to how individuals not directly involved with us actually hear about or find us, these incidents move me. Deeply.

A few weeks back it happened again. This time, a UVM student called to ask if we would be the focus of a student fund-raising project. A team of 10 students from a variety of disciplines who have come together in a class on entrepreneurship have been charged with creating a pop-up commercial venture. Their personal interests intersect at gender equality, criminal justice and women’s issues. Which is how they found us.

For six to eight weeks, they will have two slots/week on camput to sell something which they have designed and produced. Their goal is to start a conversation about incarceration. When me met, I jotted down the list of impacts they wanted from their project: connection, building social capital, rehumanizing and validating the incarcerated in an authentic way to raise awareness about criminal justice reform. A tall order by any standard.

They are mid-project right now. Their product is still under development. Working with a copy of HEAR ME, SEE ME: Incarcerated Women Write and their own brainstorming, initiative and energythey will choose artwork and empowering quotable lines to create their product.

Stay tuned for more information as the plan unfolds!

on silence

Silence. What a double-edged concept. Every year I hold a workshop around the topic,  framed as “Refusing Silence.” Yet even so, every year writing comes out on both sides of silence: the heavy hand that imposes an unwanted internal reality vs the spacious opening for reflective growth and nurture.

Like anything, it is not so simple, Nor are the realities of silence either/or, one extreme or the other. I am reminded of this again and again as I hear stories about silences we carry, silences we suffer, silences we impose, silences we seek. Last week at this time, I had the privilege of speaking to an assembled group at Three Cathedral Square, a Burlington assisted living/retirement community. They wanted to learn more about writinginsideVT and to hear from the incarcerated women who so eloquently write inside prison walls week after week.

I opened with a poem called “Silence” from our 2013 book, HEAR ME, SEE ME: Incarcerated Women Write. Following a chance to check in with what resonated for each of the dozen participants seated in a circle with me, I invited them to think about a silence in their own lives — whether self- or other-imposed — and to consider its lifelong impact on them. And the stories poured out, going back as they will to early experiences of shaming, belittling, being made to feel less-than, invisible, devalued … from men and women alike.

These stories were also interspersed with heartening follow-ups: the shy one who started to speak up against unequal pay at her workplace; the one who would now take positive action in the face of political repression; the one who found her voice after being told silence equalled ‘being good’ … the bullied and marginalized who discovered through writing how to create an identity that would serve them as adults … the misunderstood who just wanted loving acceptance …

Sadly, these very personal stories of otherness and loneliness and despair are all too universal. Certainly they are often the stuff of which the incarcerated write. And yet here I was in the middle of a cross-section of the never-incarcerated. After we shared our own stories, I read more from the book, perhaps another ten or so pieces covering a number of topics. These wonderful elders were spellbound, grateful, engaged and encouraged by the wisdom and perseverance of ‘our’ inside writers. As are all of us who walk into the echoing corridors week after week to witness the power of the written word to promote awareness, growth and change.

As is my usual custom, I followed up the session by creating a ‘found poem’ from the few lines I jotted down while listening to others read. I know you’ll find yourself in here, too.

 

SILENCE CAN BE SCARY

Silence can be scary,
a feeling of endangerment
that imprisons because of what has happened in life.
A repressed childhood, a lot of secrets —
imposed silence feels like being unseen.
Like Sunday School – ‘you need to be quiet to hear’ –
or feeling an outsider in a new school.
It hurts to keep so much inside over the years,
not expressing yourself;
waiting to vote, getting out of line without saying anything
because I didn’t own property;
the shaming and belittling of
who do you think you are?!?

Lying in bed, I just wanted Mom to hold me.
I’ve never been much of a talker;
I’m very shy, just listen.
I still don’t like to speak.
And yet – inside silence is an opportunity
if I can really listen.

As a 12-year-old, I found my voice through writing,
forced to find myself.
As an employee, I started writing letters,
speaking up at meetings
for equal pay;
today I would call the Board of Elections.
I’m vocal, I’m not retreating.

Silence can be scary, either way.

swb
[poem ‘found’ from lines shared at our 2/1/18 conversation about writinginsideVT]

annual appeal

rise TD

art by TD

‘I rise to be a better me,’ CP,
wiVT participant

Like Maya Angelou, wiVT writers  at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility rise from their pain, their fear, their history. Last month, 25 community guests witnessed their voices raised with determination:

They’re taken my true meaning,
the light that lives in me
eclipsed by ugly rhetoric …

I sit, I burn, I crumble.
Still, like dust, I rise.
I rise to be a better me …

Our writers welcome the weekly space for engagement, reflection, comfort, healing. Their writing transforms personal suffering into shared experience. As they make meaning of their lives, they learn skills — accountability, respect, confidence — that help re-entry and re-integration into their communities upon release. By sharing their stories, they help you understand who they are, how prison impacts their lives — and how you impact them.

WON’T YOU PLEASE RISE TO SUPPORT THEM

WITH YOUR GENEROUS GIFT TODAY?
Any amount you can give is greatly appreciated toward our goal
of $12,000 and is fully tax-deductible.
Please make your check payable to SBCJC – wiVT
19 Gregory Drive, South Burlington, VT 05403
YOUR GIFT WILL HELP PROVIDE:
  • weekly skill- and community-building
  • community education via our writers’ blog
  • publication of participant work and public readings
  • team training for program integrity and uniqueness
  • encouragement to each writer to rise into their best self
With heartfelt thanks to ALL who support our mission to ‘bring incarcerated women’s words from inside – out.’
swb copy
Sarah W. Bartlett, MA, Founding Co-Director

Meghan Reynolds, MFA, Co-Director

Melissa Pasanen, Kristin Brownlow, Kassie Tibbott, Kathryn Baudreau, Tobe Zalinger, Dorsey Naylor, program assistants.

P.S. This year we started two ‘writing outside’ groups for justice-involved women in South Burlington and Randolph. W VT College of Fine Arts intern has devoted the fall to gathering writings from the past few years for LIFELINES, which we plan to publish in 2018 . Thank you, Bianca!! Stay tuned for publication details as they unfold.

Thanks to generous individual support from you, our donors; grants from Bari and Peter Dreissigacker, The Richard E. and Deborah L.Tarrant Foundation, Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, Inc. and Serena Foundation; and our home organization, South Burlington Community Justice Center (SB CJC), we are able to continue providing this unique program to Vermont’s incarcerated women.

hope

“Life is a constant Advent season: we are continually waiting to become, to discover, to complete, to fulfill. Hope, struggle, fear, expectation and fulfillment are all part of our Advent experience.”

As we enter the season of Advent, there is little to cheer on women incarcerated at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. Waiting and preparation are what their time is made of; and for many of them, the hope that originally wove through the fabric of time has simply worn thin.

Holidays can be a particularly tough time inside, as they remind us of family closeness and the warmth of special traditions. Yet in spite of all that seems to separate us from one another, our weekly opportunity to sit together, pen our thoughts and share them openly brings a measure of relief, of closeness … even of hope.

A sampling of the writing from this week follows, written by the artists whose work appears above:

HOPE

Hope has no goddamned wings. Perhaps she had them once, a shining Christmas angel full-feathered. Now she staggers wet cobblestones dripping bloody stumps, stray feathers mutilated with her blood. She weeps and wails, sorry for herself or sorry for me. Hope has no goddamned wings. She doesn’t wear a sparkling samite sheath. She wears tattered rags, too worn and stained to be black, too mottled to be gray. Her muddy petticoat bares torn lace, my Freudian slip showing. Hope has no goddamned wings. Her feet bleed with every halting step, the mean and bitter earth cutting and snatching, tearing and rending tender, once-pristine feet. Hope has no goddamned wings. She was shot down long ago, if she ever flew at all on wings made of the dreams of fools. Hope has no goddamned wings. I’ve never seen her face shining with holy light, only wet with sweat and tears, folded like a Japanese fan with effort. Hope has no goddamned wings. She doesn’t sing a victory tune. She compels me on with a fucking dirge – mine – if I don’t work harder, faster, longer, better … mine, if I’m lucky. Hope has no goddamned wings.

MR

***

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a hard remembering

Hampton III Gallery

 Memory… is the diary that we all carry about with  us. – Oscar Wilde

 Memory is the fourth dimension to any landscape. – Janet Fitch

November is a time for memories. Some are   easy and some are not. We gather around tables   or feel the tug of past meals in our guts. We repeat what we are grateful for and hear the faint echo of what we are not grateful for, that we would let fall away from us like leaves.

In this week’s group, we examined all of it. Some writers wrote about who they missed most or who they missed least. We talked through the scents and smells of our memories, how they all have the power to pull us back in time.

In the pieces below, you will read all these perspectives.

RAIN

The rain, the start before the storm,
the high before the low,
the blue sky to the dark cries.

The nights you could not see my cries inside,
missing the nights we held each other tight,

the nights the drops fell from my face,
thinking about our last embrace,

the rain from the bright blue skies,
no longer is their hurt in my eyes.

No longer do I need your embrace.
The rain has done, erased.
LB Continue reading